Revisiting The Lost Concept Of Matriarchy

Posted: February 13, 2015

Has our society completely ignored the concept of matriarchy? What can we learn from matriarchal societies?

Is matriarchy just an absurd concept? An idea that can appear only in feminist fiction? Or a state which is completely unnatural in itself?

Matriarchy vs. patriarchy is an age old debate and I find no harm in revisiting it. Cynthia Eller in her book, The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory says that the concept of matriarchy is false and in no way compliments the feminist movement. She argued that equality and the rule of women is a myth and must be rejected altogether. At a very fundamental level, I cannot agree with her. I do not know how practical matriarchy is, or if it calls for a great amount of practical innovation just to think about it, but atleast as a concept I believe it is worthy of discussion.

In contrast to Cynthia, Gerda Lerner in her book, The Creation of Patriarchy, vividly describes how patriarchy was a human made concept and is bound to end one day. Such a notion might be farfetched in the present social setting, but as I said, it deserves to be thought of.

I am reading Anthropology these days and whenever I read about matriarchal or matrilineal societies, I wonder why the feminist movement is silent on this. Perhaps people don’t know about the practical existence of such societies in the past or even in the present times or they just feel the concept is so unintelligent that discussing about it would do no good. Whatever is the case, as such societies exist and provide for a solution to many inherent problems of patriarchy, I am proceeding with this article.

Before getting to the serious matriarchal societies, there is the case of the weirdly funny Indian television matriarch, where she gets some magical powers in her husband’s home and is very clearly unwanted in her natal home. Her only source of power is her husband’s name, her finance and economics confined to the petty “Stridhan” she receives as the religiously sanctioned endowment and is completely dependent on her husband’s status for her recognition.

Still in her own ways, she is most powerful. She is the sole authority to decide how many sons her “bahu” must produce, how many marriages her son has to get into, and the like. All these “Saas Bahu” serials are comic reflections of unfortunate realities. Women today are getting economically independent but are still, somehow, dependent on the “name” of a man. Her existence is still pendulous, she is still expected to take the name of her husband, and even if she doesn’t do it by choice, it happens automatically. Infact with changing times, patriarchy has become an awkward juxtaposition of enhanced responsibilities for women (home and workplace) where at the same time she also has to be grateful to the society for all the freedom she is granted. Even today, marriage in India is not seen in the light of companionship or mutual support, rather as a source of identity for a girl. All such situations are nothing but manifestations of patriarchy.

Even today, marriage in India is not seen in the light of companionship or mutual support, rather as a source of identity for a girl.

Two interesting societies around the world

While reading Anthropology I came across two very interesting societies. The Khasis of Meghalaya and the Kibbutz of Israel.

India, very proudly, is home to one the rarest matriarchal communities, the Khasis. Khasi people are the indigenous inhabitants of Meghalaya. Khasi women inherit the property and the children get their mother’s name. All the religious services are performed by women. The man after marriage moves to his wife’s house. The most important aspect of this community is the perfect balance they create in their roles. Men and women are equal when it comes to child rearing. Men take care of the betel farms (their primary source of living) and women help in processing etc. back at home. So, like the traditional patriarchal setup, men go out to the farm and women mostly are engaged in work at home. But as women hold the vital power of property and name, they are treated on par by default.

Men go out, earn money, hand it over to their wives and the property they create is inherited by their daughter. In this process everyone gets their due and the balance is established. Men are required because they take care of the farms (or financial aspects) and women are required because they inherit property, carry the family name and extend the family line. The Khasi language has no word for rape in it and dowry and female foeticide are unknown to them.

In patriarchy, men are expected to earn the living and the property thus created is inherited by men themselves. Woman comes into the picture just to give birth and take care of the family. Moreover, she is also the one who takes property out of the family. In this setup, going by pure economics, a girl is a liability, a loss and hence, unwanted.

Then there is Kibbutz of Israel, another very interesting setup. Here a conscious effort was made to establish gender equality. Quoting from the Wikipedia page on Kibbutz community, “Women were only seen as separate because they gave birth to children, automatically tying them to the domestic sphere. In order to liberate women and promote gender equality, they could not be tied to solely domestic duties and child care giving. The Kibbutz wanted to give women the opportunity to continue their work in the agricultural sector and industrial sector. To solve these issues the founders created the communal children’s houses, where the children would spend most of their time; learning, playing and sleeping. Parents spent 3 to 4 hours a day in the afternoon with their children after work and before dinner. This is actually a lot more quality time for parents to spend with their kids than in other societies. Collective child rearing was also a way to escape the patriarchal society that the founders came from. Children would not be dependent on their fathers economically, socially, legally or otherwise and this would eliminate the father’s authority and uproot the patriarchy”. This was how the Kibbutz community was established.

When I find some really awesome and workable solutions in matriarchy and other such innovative setups, I wonder, what stops us from integrating them into our social system?

I was once discussing all this with a friend and she said “You have no brother, have an amazing family, then why do you bother”. I do have an amazing family and everything is perfectly in place for me; still, I am bothered because not everyone is as privileged as I am and not every family is as liberal and understanding as mine is.

When I look around and find families visiting temples and organizing “havans” for a male child, hiding the news of a baby girl being born, spending lavishly to celebrate the birth of a male child, making their sons study in the best schools possible and compromising on the education of their girls, I find nothing else to blame but patriarchy. And when I find some really awesome and workable solutions in matriarchy and other such innovative setups, I wonder, what stops us from integrating them into our social system? What stops our impulse, imagination and courage to accept new ideas gain ground? What stops us from at least having a discussion?

Image of dolls via Shutterstock

I am Niyati Sharma and have completed my Master's in Physics at BITS Pilani.

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  1. Wonderful piece of writing, informative too! Keep up the good work Niyati!

  2. the only thing we as women need to do is stop desperately seeking approval, respect, importance from men. Just be, do what you need to and want to, and behave responsibly by educating all young girls the importance of developing high self esteem. The minute the seeking ends, one is simply liberated. I have given “LOK” as a part of my son s family name from my side. serves two purposes, transending the limitedness of individual identities based on caste, community etc, and that his family name has components of both of us. i urge women to NOT change their names and surnames after marriage and give their family names to their children especially daughters. its time to have our own identity and pass it onto our heirs, our daughters!

    • Niyati Sharma -

      Hi Saumya! what you believe in and what you have stood for is laudable and inspiring. I believe if such a practice kicks in most of the issues related to identity and dependence can be done away with.

  3. Hello Ma’am,

    I am a PhD scholar of Panjab University, Chandigarh and currently writing my paper on history of matriarchy and evolution of patriarchy. I could not found any other way to contact you so I am leaving my email address below for some information regarding matriarchy.
    I am eager to receive your feedback.


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